There are schools of fish, and then there is school for fish.

A new program at Otterbein University aims to give students an education in aquarium science, focusing on aquatic life and developing skills to maintain and solve problems occurring in aquarium environments.

The university, which already has a zoo and conservation science program, will add the aquarium track this fall.

Otterbein's zoo degree already is rare, with just five universities across the country offering such a program. Schools offering aquarium concentrations and students specializing in aquarium science are even more in demand, said Anna Young, director of the zoo program. When Young attends zoo conferences each year, she's always met with the same question about Otterbein's program: "Do you have an aquarium major?"

"With the need, the interest in it and the expertise that we do have on campus and the ability to then branch into a new area ... (students) will have this opportunity to select this alternative focus," Young said.

"All the interest outside of Otterbein ... about aquariums, that leads me to believe that there's a really good market," said Halard Lescinsky, professor in Otterbein's Department of Biology and Earth Science, who will lead the aquarium program.

Beyond their core zoo and conservation science courses, Otterbein students within the aquarium program will take marine biology and other aquarium classes, have the ability to become certified as a scuba diver, be responsible for the upkeep of a saltwater tank and have the opportunity to travel to Central America to conduct research with faculty members at the Belize Barrier Reef.

The program also will offer learning opportunities through the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium as well as Reef Systems Coral Farm, a live coral farm in New Albany. Otterbein also has a smaller coral reef tank that will be used on campus.

Young said other schools' programs touch on marine life, but few go into the depth that Otterbein's will. She said the program will teach students "how you actually set up and run an aquarium and keep those animals alive."

With so much on the agenda, Young said Otterbein can only allow 24 new students in the program each year while still maintaining the quality desired.

"There's a balance between what is a meaningful, hands-on experience and how many students we can provide that to," she said.

Growing up just minutes from the zoo in Powell, Otterbein student Claire Sinard said she knew at an early age that she loved being around and working with animals. It's a passion she's been able to build on as a Zoo and Conservation Science major at Otterbein and through her current internship with the Columbus Zoo, working in the Discovery Reef area.

"I came into this internship always having a fascination for aquatic life, and I never really grasped all the details that are involved in this area," said Sinard, who helps with diet prep, feedings, water quality checks and other maintenance.

Though Sinard is already a junior and won't take Otterbein's aquarium track, she said it's a program she would have considered if it had been available to her as a freshman.

"For any incoming student who wants to work in an aquarium, it's very different world than a regular animal field," she said.

Otterbein leaders hope the aquarium program will offer students another potential employment option upon graduation. Rather than zookeeper jobs, graduates with zoo degrees under the new program can land positions at aquariums and fisheries -- a field where jobs can be more plentiful, according to Young and Lescinsky.

"The key thing is we're trying to turn out students who can be in this aquarium industry," Lescinsky said. "The students need to make a living at some point, and that's probably going to be in aquariums."

Unlike animals on dry land, those in aquariums require more care and attention, Sinard said. Those who care for aquarium animals must be a zookeeper, chemist and plumber all at once.

"In an aquarium, everything kind of depends on the water itself," Sinard said.

For more information, visit Otterbein.edu.

jsmola@dispatch.com

@jennsmola